The tiny hut of azure, its long narrow windows bordered in blood scarlet, had a third of its foundation teetering on the edge of the vast cliff face, as if it were flirting with the thought of diving into the gushing valley below. Of rickety build, its bricks were made more of guts and brazen defiance, not of the expected clay and shale.
Arundhati, a little out of breath from the steep ascent, felt relief soothe over the sores on her feet as she read out loud the words on the rectangle board hung on the hut’s sloping roof of tiles, “Mantola Tea Shop”. Her feet now paced on ahead faster, the words pulling her in like a fish caught in a net. Not quite understanding why or how, but she sensed it so clearly that this place had been waiting for her, that it had held a patient vigil for the day she would delve inside. High above her head, on the currents of the clear alpine breeze, swayed and fluttered hundreds and hundreds of prayer flags, squares of fierce and bright colours, and her interest soon fixed tight on them. She was close to tripping over if she had kept her eyes on them for any longer. Each one seemed to be sewn with its own character, as if it were a person, and together their hushed voices beckoned her to venture ever forth towards the hut, whose walls were painted from dyes harvested from the great Himalayan sky.
Arundhati saw the two wooden saloon doors, ribbed and chipped, motionlessly hang in front of her and nervousness pricked her skin with needle-point sharpness, for she had never entered these premises, because she had overheard at school that the old man who ran the place was a madman. What if he were to use his cunning ways to trap her inside forever? Unlike the Ali Baba of ‘Arabian Nights’, what if this man of the same name had no care or intention for goodwill, and that instead he poured all his malice into the forging of this den of corrupt things, a place cleverly cloaked under by the daytime guise of an unassuming tea house? No, she could not let imaginary horrors, truths stained out of uncertainties, stall her feet now, and with a deep sigh that came from beneath the sheath of her heart, she whispered fearlessly, “Open Sesame!”, and with that she pushed the saloon doors open and stepped inside.
The blazing light of the day suddenly became eclipsed and in its place, there she was, in a room that only suckled on the secrecies of the night, a wide room caressed in the fog of smouldering wisps of frankincense, whose sticks burnt from brass holders made of filigree bodies fixed midway along the teak-panelled walls. A naked bulb hung down from the centre of the ceiling by a single threadbare wire and when its light merged and mingled with the languorous wisps of incense smoke it made everything seem as if it were a memory that had estranged itself from the past of a stranger. Arundhati stood still, her eager eyes panning from one end of the room to the other. Small tables, each adjoined by four chairs, were strewn around the room, some were filled with bantering customers on each side talking over each other, on others pairs of old men whiled the time away as they became engrossed in deep conversations on course for lasting as long as eternity itself. Without a doubt what united them all was their singular and unspoken love for tea, glass cups filled to the rim with luscious thick brews of hot milky nectar, and from each exuded ethereal twists of steam that danced into the accumulating growth of incense smog like phantom dervishes twirling, spinning, and finally losing themselves into the bliss and ecstasy of annihilation.
Soon her searching eyes froze in their tracks. Ahead of her, beyond the counter, stretched out across the entire wall like some vestige of the Milky Way itself, she saw the most beautiful prayer mat she had ever laid eyes on in her life. It depicted the Kaaba, cloaked in black mystery, which stood in the centre, and it was surrounded by two tall minarets of pearl and beyond that lay ragged mountains and valleys that rose out from the earth, their towering presence spoke testimony to the ancientness of the site. The inner border of the rug was intricately woven in geometric patterns of black and white, and the more she peered at it, the more the patterns grew, as if it were something alive and evolving by the passing of each second. She could not take her eyes off it, and taking a step forward, she gazed through it and for a moment or so, she could have sworn a river of peacock eyes swam through the currents of the geometry, perfectly reamed and riddled inside the borders of the rug.
“The janamaz you see was handed down to me by my great-great grandfather.”
Arundhati snapped to her right where stood an old man, not too short, not too tall, he wore a bushy white beard, his face speckled in countless age spots, and on top of his oil-slicked hair he wore a black cap, it was flamboyantly fashioned with circular mirrors embroidered in to the velvety fabric, affixed with zig-zag threading of yellow and red. He looked at Arundhati thoughtfully. She knew then that this was no madman. She could feel that her presence was awaited by him. She chanced another glimpse of the prayer mat, in case, she feared, it became obscure or melted away without her ever paying a proper compliment to it.
“It is extraordinary. Like a storybook, but with no pages.” She turned round to face the old man again and realised that he had not taken his kindly eyes away from her. He had not let loose a single twitch of an expression to tell her of what he thought of her assessment, but that was not necessary. Arundhati smiled at him just the same.
“Come with me, have a better look at it”, and then he paused and she sensed that he had gone as far as reading into her soul. He resumed, “… so that my mat can take a better look at you.” The old man walked round in front of her and gestured with his left hand to follow him. Wedged within his right arm was a silver tray, and together with the single pen clipped inside the top pocket of his grey kurta, she noticed that he did not seem to be as old as she had presumed he would be, it was rather more accurate to say that here was a man who was of the moment, ageless and fantastically unhindered by the arrow of time.
As she paced slowly beside him some of the customers looked up at her from their tables. Brief swivels of the eye that made it apparent to her that she was a novice here in this steamy world of tea and incense and timeless prayer mats inherited down the generations. When they got to the counter, a smooth ledge of teak wood, the old man laid the dish on top of it and then leaned his elbow on it before cupping his head in his hand. “I dream to go there someday.”
Awed by the stunning craftsmanship displayed by the weaver behind its creation, it took a while or so before Arundhati noticed that the old man was still speaking to her. “I am sorry, yes, yes, of course, you will go there someday. I hope you do. It is Mecca, right?”
“Are you not Muslim?”
“Well, to be honest with you, Ali Baba – …”, Arundhati halted herself, she felt embarrassed, for it struck her that it was foolish to presume with such haste that this man was the owner of the Mantola Tea Shop. “… Erm, you are Ali Baba, right?”
The old man let out a hearty chuckle. “Your instincts serve you well, yes, I am Ali Baba”.
Arundhati smiled, happy that she had got it right. “Well….” , and she uttered his name decisively as if she were willing him to become more alive than he really was, “… Ali Baba, I am not really sure what I am. I don’t have a prayer mat – a jana –..” and she had already forgotten what it was called in the man’s native tongue and raised her eyebrows for assistance.
“Yes, a janamaz. I don’t have a janamaz at home, but I do have on my bedside table a wonderful image of Maa Sarasthwathi, the Goddess of Knowledge and Music. She is like a good friend to me, I look to her for help when I need it.”
The old man smiled, a wise smile that told her that he knew of more things than a tea house alone could store within its four walls. “It is important that we all have something to believe in when things turn hopeless and dark”. A glimmer of moonlight drilled a noble stand in the core of his pupils, it immediately inspired Arundhati to treat the man with the utmost respect. The lack of long years of acquaintance between the two of them, that was usually required for such respect to ferment from, was suddenly irrelevant.
“Why don’t you take a seat, my dear…” He did not have to scan the room, with blinding spontaneity he pointed at a table, the tiniest of them all, near the wall on the right, it was completely unoccupied, “… and I will make you a fine cup of tea and while I do that you can sit and choose what you wish to ask me of The Shaligram Ammonite.”
Arundhati looked at him bewilderingly and followed his movements as he swiftly got down with the business of making her tea behind the counter. With his focus down on the stove, he once more gave his gentle order, “Off you go, my dear, there is a free table over there, and I will come to you soon”.
She pressed through the thick tresses of the fragrant frankincense, a spidery web that brought impenetrable mystery to the place, and when she reached the table, she saw a gleaming hardback book on top of it. It looked like a brick that was birthed by these cliffs and its colour dyed out of the juices of a billion sal leaves. Arundhati sat herself down and put her rucksack by her feet. She glanced back at the counter where the old man quietly whistled to himself as he poured out loose tea leaves into the cast iron pot. She knew he would not mind it if she were to inspect the book on the table, but still felt safer if she were to do it whilst he was preoccupied with his work. She drew the book closer to her and brushed her palm over the large, gold-gilded words embossed deep down into the canvas of emerald green. “The Holy Qu’ran”. The inner border of the cover arrested her senses, it was a design of ornate lattice, arches and paisley shapes, and within its tracery she received that unmistakeable impression that the grace of the peacock, its plumes of elegant feathers, was staring back at her. She felt as if home had followed her to here. As she picked up the book, the gravity of its weight mimicking a miniature earth, a single loose paper stuck out from within its covers. Curious, she carefully opened the book out and discovered that one of the pages, where the inked words floated along the page in strokes that resembled the hull of boats, had been torn from the centre stitching, and not only that, the page itself had a violent rip down one side, a lightning bolt cursed only by the hands of an angry soul. It saddened Arundhati to see this, and she concluded that this could not be the wrongdoing of the old man. She believed in her heart that such behaviour was not in his constitution. Bending down into her rucksack, Arundhati poked about until her fingers hooked onto her pencil case from which she took out a small roll of clear tape. She surveyed the whereabouts of the old man. He was expertly pouring the steaming light brown concoction from a burnt pan down into the glass tumbler, a wide smile adorned his face, a tell-tale sign of a man who considered himself the grandfather of delicious waterfalls with the potency to quench the thirst of the weary.
Just as the old man came over to her, Arundhati slipped the clear tape back into her rucksack with a satisfied grin. The old man picked up the book, he discreetly brushed his thumb over the title, and Arundhati was just quick enough to catch the ghost of a tear drop swell in the old man’s eyes. He had lost someone that was close to him, someone who had walked out on him. Arundhati was certain about this, more certain than anything she had ever been certain about, and that, like the way the Mantola Tea Shop tip-toed on the edge of uncertainty, gambling each moment with the irregularities of the land, so did this old man appear to her as if he were waiting out for the return of someone who meant the world to him, and that he still did. She wished she could ask him more about why his copy of the holy book kept within its folds the pieces of a broken heart, but alas time was not on her side, and she shuffling her back straight, thanked and smiled at the old man for his generous hospitality.
The old man sat opposite her before passing over to her a delicious cup of golden tea, its flowery steam trails coiling towards the ceiling and staying up there, feeding into the already convoluted clouds of water and scent. “So, do you have a name?”
It felt right to tell him of her name after her first sip, an initiation of trust fulfilled. “Arundhati Mehta. I always walk past your tea shop on my way to school, but never got a chance to come inside.” She saw that the old man had not prepared a cup for himself.
“Why would a schoolgirl be so interested in The Shaligram Ammonite?” He leaned in closer, his arms crossed over the silver tray.
“I think you know the answer already, Ali Baba. You must know of a treasure, the one I seek, just like your namesake once did in the ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’.”
A faint smile passed by his face. He admired her precocious acuity.
She took another sip, as the warm liquid cascaded in between the valleys of her lungs an overwhelming power forced her eyes to anchor down on the beautiful janamaz on the wall. Not taking her eyes from it, she spoke to the old man, “We are both seekers of treasures, Ali Baba, and I trust you will be able to help me find mine.” She returned to meet his gaze. “Please, help me…”
He was reading her soul, she could sense it with magnificent lucidity, as palpable as if it were the sun kissing her cool moist skin after bathing in rivers all day. He let out a long exhale. “There is magic everywhere, my dear Arundhati, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikeliest of places”.
Arundhati was clueless as to where to begin. The old man had spoken, word for word, the very same passage that was shown to her through her binoculars the night before. She came in a little closer, darting a look in every direction to ensure that no one was listening in, and she whispered hesitatingly, “Are you working for The British Secret Service, too?”
“I’ve never heard of them….”, he replied it so matter-of-fact that Arundhati’s growing crescendo of adventure and drama fell flat on its face, she reprimanded herself for being too ambitious and was about to slump back into her chair when, quick as a flash, the old man firmly gripped her arm and forced her to freeze, “… though I suspect you will ask me about Mr Roald Dahl now”. Slowly, he broke into a conspiratorial smile. With a huge wave of relief, she did, too.
“… Slowly, he broke into a conspiratorial smile. With a huge wave of relief, she did, too…”
“See that table over there, young Arundhati Mehta?” He nodded his head to his left and she followed it, and lo and behold, there was a long table scattered with a miscellany of objects comprising of old and dusty things, as if they were long ago collected up from the raining of a rare breed of meteor shower. “On that table, one of those objects is the hip bone of Mr Roald Dahl. He had it removed after a near-fatal plane crash into the desert.”
“Ali Baba, I don’t understand. How will identifying the hip bone of a dead writer help me to find The Shaligram Ammonite?” She was normally extraordinarily inquisitive and would have, under other circumstances, ran to the table, on the contrary now a thick sludge of confusion had set in, she could not see how the dots joined up and that mildly terrified her.
The old man folded his arms and leant back in his chair, he knew very well that she would ask him this question, a reasonable poser, if ever there was one. “All of us have been entrusted with a part of the puzzle, no one individual can see the whole picture.” He turned around his chair slightly and looked endearingly over at the table, “And my part is this. Take what you will from it.”
Arundhati did not know what to do now, and secretly she was hoping her binoculars would perform that handy trick of the light show again, however, it was resiliently mute on the matter. She was on her own for the time being.
“Do not waste time, Arundhati Mehta. Get up and seek your treasure.”
Arundhati slowly rose up from her chair and made her way to the table, and from afar, given that the giant janamaz posed itself as a natural canvas, one would have said that the girl seemed as though she were walking against the backdrop of the desert dunes, towards the Kaaba, in the direction of treasures that did not glint like the coveted sheen of gold or silver, for these treasures in question beheld forms grained out of dust and humility.
The old man did not move from his chair, though his watchful presence walked beside her. When Arundhati found herself stood in front of the table, everything on it fiercely vied for her attention, each mothballed artefact competing to be adopted and given sanctuary inside the protection of her rucksack. Her eyes soared all over the surface of the table, possessed by the flitting motions of a butterfly. Here there were glass vials, over there old postcards, pens, metal balls, a vase of yellow pencils, rusty scissors, framed photographs, slabs of stone, the list just seemed endless the more she peered and rummaged into the sea of trinkets below her. “Mr Roald Dahl’s hip bone… where are you….?”, she muttered under her breath. She tried to spread eagle her hands over the objects, crossing above them, waiting for her palms to frizzle with a sensation that would tell her that she had located it. It did not help. She turned round to face the old man, he had not budged the slightest bit, he was still wearing an expression that said louder than words that he had an immense faith in her and in her skill of detection. She gulped and pursed her lips and tentatively turned back to face the table. The smog of tea and frankincense swirled around her, a phantasmagoria of allies caving into her ears, ushering her sight to look deeper into the odd spread of objects. “How am I supposed to know what a hip bone looks like?”
“… a long table scattered with a miscellany of objects comprising of old and dusty things, as if they were long ago collected up from the raining of a rare breed of meteor shower…”
A gust of cooling breeze whooshed through the shutters and tickled her neck, she swerved round. The room descended into a new quietness, the tables of customers no more, and the janamaz hung on the wall, fluttered a little, wanting to pull itself off so that it may float down to her. A light ripple, a gravitational wave, travelled across the woven scene of the Kaaba. Arundhati was startled as she observed a thousand million peacock eyes rustle inside its geometric borders, and the next moment each peacock eye transformed itself into a dark ribbed shell, rotating on its axis. In the centre of the rug shimmered a river as jet black as a starless night. The music of a flute player trilled out from under its surface. What sweet music it was, it penetrated deep into the fibres of her skin, and she heard it say to her that it had chosen to stay there forever.
“That ought to help you, Arundhati Mehta”. The old man spoke and the world of home and Amma and school all came rushing back to her. The janamaz went back to how it was and the din of idle chattering and clinks of tumblers once again filled the room. Her mind unable to comprehend what she had just witnessed – or had she dreamt it? – she could not tell, but in her gut she was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that the old man was somehow right. She had received help. She discreetly nodded at the old man and this time, determinedly, she turned on her heels, and trained her vision on the contents of the table with renewed vigour. She mumbled to herself, stressing the syllable in each word to a tight pulp, hoping by doing so would unlock the appearance of the preserved piece, an ammonite of human bone kindly donated by the great author himself! “We are all made of ammonites just waiting to happen, that is what bone is”.
The old man, from his seat, stretched his neck out a little further, he wanted a better view, something told him that she was getting closer and closer and he, for one, did not wish to miss that moment of her discovery, the moment when she would grab it from the table, as if it were the sole solution to ending all the world’s woes. He waited patiently and he did not let his neck hurt either.
“So, Mr Roald Dahl’s hip bone must look like an ammonite too, something once joined, belonging to the waters of the body, now lying here, somewhere on this table, washed up, dry and smooth and well preserved.” Just as she was sweeping her hands over the splayed items for the fifth time, her hand abruptly came to a stop. It hovered above a dome of a smooth and hard material, the faded beige colour giving away that it once had lived in a different manner, inside of living matter. “Ah-ha, are you it?” Arundhati reached for the ball of rock, and held it in the palm of her hand before turning it over. An orb on the top, but with jagged slots underneath it, she shook her left hand in a victorious fist and concluded this was the bone of Mr Roald Dahl. “It must be this!” The old man’s eyes held a proud glow of approval. Now that she had the object in her hand it hit her that she had no idea of its significance in guiding her to the location of The Shaligram Ammonite. She gasped in dismay and was too ready to roll her head back in defeat.
“Remember, we all have a part of the piece. Your part is yet to be seen.” The old man was forcing his cryptic words into her soul. She edged away from the table, tirelessly scrutinising the hip bone, inspecting its every surface feature as she held it between her index finger and thumb. She stepped directly under the naked light bulb and stayed there. She pondered hard. What she did not know was that she was stood exactly where she ought to be, for the light emanating from the naked bulb bounced off the rounded top of the bone and immediately sent a faint, but distinguishable beam of straight light, towards the janamaz where it concentrated onto a single spot, directly over the Kaaba.
Arundhati flicked her eyes between the bulb and the rug back and forth in fast succession, she was desperate for someone to tell her that this was indeed real magic, and if it were a trick then that too she welcomed, for she delighted in knowing the secret workings of illusions. When she disentangled herself from the flurry of excitement, she remembered of her mission and the importance of investigative reasoning. “There is no such no landmark in Nepal. I don’t understand.” She shifted her foot from right to left to watch whether the aim of the beam changed. It did not. The trajectory of the light was a promise made of pure adamant. A few customers began to take notice of the girl’s unusual behaviour in front of the prayer mat, though they paid little heed in the end, comforting their suspicions with the fact that childhood made everyone do ridiculous things from time to time.
“You saw something else earlier.” The old man finally creaked out of his chair and backed up to the janamaz. He stood by it, solemnly, as if he were the chosen ambassador for giving voice to the wishes hidden in the rug’s compact castle of threads. “Think, Arundhati Mehta, think of what you saw.”
Burrowing her eyebrows, she concentrated hard. She wanted to shove it out of her mind because she feared she had fallen foul of a hallucination, and yet, it was too taxing on her when she attempted to deny the vision she had of the black swathe of the Kaaba giving way to a mighty river, as pitch black as coal, as bright as day. “A river, I saw a river inked in black”.
“That may be a start, little one”. The old man had already guessed that she had more to say and casually crossed his arms, waiting keenly for what else she would dare to interpret.
Arundhati stared up at the naked light bulb. “The light showed the way… before arriving at the river there will be a sign of light”.
The old man looked impressed, an unrehearsed joy sprung in him. “Good, keep going.”
The names of many rivers swam and thrashed into her mind. She could not tell which one bore The Shaligram Ammonite, for all the rivers, large and small, wore a coat of black sheen in this part of the land. Dazed by the knotted possibilities she rigorously rubbed her eyes up and down until they burned. When she opened them again and rolled her head back to relieve the tension in her neck, the stream of light emitted from the naked bulb slammed into her eyes like a speeding bullet. She flinched and quickly dropped her head down. “Ouch, I should not have looked straight into it!”
And, then, it occurred to her, like a fire sparked out of emptiness, the link, it was suddenly there, right inside her eyes, the second clue that would lead her onto the The Shaligram Ammonite. She ran over to her rucksack and pulled out her notebook, flicked her pen into action, and scribbled the words across the page, ‘The Lantern Tree Grove’. It was located at the crossroads between two gigantic rivers bodied by black waters. In her small triumph, she fought back the doubts, redoubling her trust in herself, she could at last accept that she had it in her to crack this puzzle down to its knees. She swung everything in her rucksack, replaced the bone back on the table, and approached the old man with a new confidence in her stride. “I think I know where to go next, but I would not have been able to do it without your help, thank you!” She was not sure why the incense smelt more fragrant now, and the tea fresher than ever before.
“That is quite alright, Arundhati Mehta. I am glad you found another piece in your journey”. He extended out his hand, old and wrinkled, coarse like a layer of tree bark that had witnessed the complex undulations of living history. She shook it and they both smirked. “All the best, my little one”.
“Thank you, Ali Baba!” She lowered her voice to a mousey whisper, “And when I am done with this mission I will make you a cup of tea, at my home. That is a promise!”
“As you wish, my dear Arundhati Mehta…”
She let go of his hand and stomped off towards the table where they were sat at first, took a quick swig of the remaining tea in the tumbler, brushed the liquid residue from her face, and then swooshed out of the saloon doors, unintentionally blowing the locks and hats of many of the customers sat nearby. Before they could say a word or raise a finger against her, she was gone.
The old man pulled up a seat by the table and fondly looked at the thick compress of the holy book. At first he stared at it like he always did. Gradually, however, he become frightened and then he was gripped with panic. The loose page that so often protruded from it was missing. His first instinct was to look under the table, in case it slipped out onto the ground. There was nothing there. He sat back up and picked up the book and hurriedly flicked the pages across, and where there had been the ugly duckling of that loose page, the one torn into two, the old man, now with huge awestruck eyes, discovered that not only was the page fixed back in it original place in the book, but that the page had come together again. The pieces were sown up with the magical remedy of clear tape. The old man lovingly gazed at the saloon doors, and his heart rejoiced until it flew higher than the top of the Kaaba itself.
“Ali Baba, we’ve been waiting a while, can we have another round of your fine house tea!” A family of four, all of different heights and with beady eyes, sat on one of the tables. They were fidgeting a lot. It was obvious from their attire that they were not from these parts.
“Of course, of course!” The old man walked over to their table, but in his haste he had forgotten to close the holy book, leaving it wide open at the part where the loose, wounded page had once belonged. Now, clear as water, the healing hallmarks of tape ran across it, left by the girl who could fix things. Under the naked bulb, the tape shone like the fine tributaries of rivers, threads of desires winding their way down along the mountain of the page. The hull of holy words knew what it felt like to float again. ♥♥♥
Photography & Words: © Masufa Khatun | Mazzy Khatun Photo Stories | Hampshire | UK 2016
Photography & Words: © Masufa Khatun | Mazzy Khatun Photo Stories | Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre |Great Missenden | Buckinghamshire | UK 2016